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Except for a single scream, no one speaks above a hard whisper. Wind
rustles through sugar cane fields guarded by a pop-eyed, nearly
skeletal zombie who stands as lifeless and stick-shouldered as a
scarecrow. A dead rabbit hangs in a tree. Voodoo drums thrum the night
"I Walked with a Zombie" is a movie of such voluptuous atmosphere that if you surrender yourself to it, it almost seems as if you've been transported to another world. It's a horror movie of suggestion, inference, punctuated with the occasional visual just sharp enough to prick through the feeling of dread and send a chill up the spine.
All performances low-key and excellent (Frances Dee notably good), the dialog crisp, but it's the lighting, sets and camera work that make the movie what it is, a gorgeous vision of shadows that haunts the mind days later.
And it's only 69 minutes long.
"I Walked with a Zombie", besides having one of the oddest movie titles, took a different approach to the horror genre than the popular Universal movies of the day. Maybe it harkens back to the earlier Universal heavies like "Dracula" and "Bride of Frankenstein". Made by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, they crafted their collaborations using a poetic, dreamlike approach to cinematic storytelling. Lyrical and atmospheric, "I Walked with a Zombie" recounts the story of a Canadian nurse sent to a small West Indian sugar island to tend for a young comatose woman, the wife of the island's plantation owner. What's wrong with her? Hints abound through the songs of the calypso singers, bits of dialogue, objects in the movie. The story, as odd as it is, is not told directly. You may think it is, but at the end of the film, you're not so certain of what's happened. Were the events the work of the supernatural? Was a crime committed? Or both? Or neither? It's difficult to say. I recommend this movie, it's important not to forget the older, off-beat films.
The film opens with Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) being interviewed for a
home-care nursing position. Oddly, she's asked during the interview if
she believes in witchcraft. She gets the position, working for Paul
Holland (Tom Conway), who is a wealthy plantation owner on the
Caribbean island of St. Sebastian. Holland has hired her to take care
of his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is in a perpetual state
that resembles somnambulance. As Betsy spends more time on the island,
she learns that most of the population believes in and practices
voodoo, and she learns that Jessica had a relatively tumultuous past
with Holland's family.
This was director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton's second horror/thriller collaboration (the first being Cat People (1942) and the third The Leopard Man (1943)). For many viewers, it is their favorite of the three. While I like the film, I don't like it quite that much--I prefer Cat People. But still, I Walked With A Zombie ends up with a 7 out of 10 from me.
The horror aspects of I Walked With A Zombie are really very minor. They're really present only as a kind of personification of the results of complicated romantic and familial relationships. Yes, there is an admirable "haunted house"-styled scene involving a spooky stairway and creepy, distant sounds, and yes, the trek to the voodoo "home fort" is well done, but this kind of material doesn't work as well for me here as it did in Cat People, because here it's not really the focus of the story. It's ancillary material with the function of helping to solve a very different kind of mystery. Also, much of the voodoo material (such as the actual ceremony) tends to be overrated in my opinion, although the final sequence related to the voodoo theme is appropriately eerie.
But what works best for me in I Walked With A Zombie are the many dialogue-heavy scenes where the three main characters--Connell, Holland and Wesley Rand (James Ellison)--gradually learn more about one another, and where the "mystery" is gradually uncovered. A scene where a local "minstrel" sings part of the backstory while Connell and Rand are having a drink is exquisite, for example. Yet, even with this positive aspect, I never felt that the backstory was sufficiently explained. The mystery remains, and the moralizing bookends of the film do not help, either.
Still, I Walked With A Zombie is definitely worth a watch, and based on the extravagant praise that many viewers utter towards the film, you might like it much better than I do.
Present day viewers watching this wonderful movie after reading the label "horror" and seeing the word "zombie" in the title, might be in for a shock if they think they're going to be in for a Romero/Fulci gorefest. This is a completely different kind of zombie movie! In fact, calling it horror is quite misleading, mystery is the more appropriate description. Anyone who has seen 'Cat People', the earlier collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, will know what to expect. A haunting and subtle yet suspenseful, and yes, at times quite scary, thriller. 'I Walked With A Zombie' (a classic title! Later lifted by Roky Erikson for a classic song) follows 'Cat People's ambiguous format quite closely with a series of events which may or may not have a supernatural explanation. Add a dash of 'Jane Eyre' to it and a West Indies setting and there you have it. Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and there are moments in this movie which are truly unforgettable. The two leads Tom Conway and Frances Dee are both very good, and Dee is cute to boot. I don't think 'I Walked With A Zombie' is quite as brilliant as 'Cat People', which I still think ties with the film noir classic 'Out Of The Past' as Tourneur's greatest film, but it comes very close, and I highly recommend it. If you've never seen this one before, turn off all the lights and watch with someone special. You are in for a real treat!
***SPOILERS*** Undoubtedly the most atmospheric of the Lawton/Tourneur
film collaborations "I Walked with a Zombie" is completely told in
flashback by nurse Betsy Connell, Frances Dee. Who was sent from the
cold weather of Ottawa Canada's Memorial Hospital to the warm Caribbean
tropical breezes of the Island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies to
care for Paul Holland's, Tom Conway, comatose wife Jessica.
A rehash of the Charlotte Bronte classic "Jean Eyre" the movie is also about the supernatural and unknown in the form of the Island's natives strange belief in Voodoo. Were also shown in the movie how it can effect a person thats put under it's spell by making them become a walking dead, a Zombie.
Betsy with the help of Dr. Maxwell, James Bell, can find no reason for Jessica's abnormal condition and thinks that she's the victim of some unknown tropical disease with no cure for it. But as the story goes on Betsy Paul and Dr. Maxwell as well as Paul's step-brother Wesley, James Ellison, begin to realize that what struck Jessica is something beyond the understanding of modern science or medicine. We learn the truth about Jessica, and what struck her and who was responsible for it, from non other then Mrs. Rand, Edith Barrett, Paul and Wesley's mother. Who's also a doctor, mostly for the natives, on the Island of St. Sebastian.
The movie has what's become a trademark in Lawton/Tourneur movies with it's use by director Tourneur of light and sound as well as the audience imagination to build up the tension. The tension reaches a point where it almost becomes unbearable to those watching without having a stiff drink to settle them down. The scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the dark sugar cane field is a good example of how Tourneur can scare the hell out of you without any special effects like the way it's done in horror movies by todays movie makers.
In the quite and eerie moonlight the two women walk through the dark and spooky cane fields running into a host of bloodcurdling Voodoo artifacts. Then when reaching the outskirts of Islands Homefort where Betsy want to get Jessica help from the local Voodoo priestess, guess who she is, and runs into seven-foot tall Carre-Four, Darby Jones, standing guard. The sight of the creepy and giant Carre-Four scares the living hell out of Betsy as well as those of us in the audience watching. But that's as far as he's made to go by the movies director just to stand there, but the effect is absolutely heart-stopping.
Betsy falls in love with Paul but at the same time wants to restore Paul's wife Jessica back to health and thus lose him. Paul who also fell in love with Betsy want's her to leave the Island to prevent that from happening. But at the end of the movie it becomes evident that Jessica is not alive but a Zombie and it was Mrs. Rand who hid this from everyone to keep the truth from coming out. Mrs. Rand in a way held herself responsible for Jessica's illness since she was deeply involved with the Island natives who's spell put Jessica in that condition.
Were also told that Jessica was not exactly the sweet and kind person that Nurse Betsy was told that she was by Paul. I was Jessica that wanted to destroy the Holland family, as well as their sugar company on the Island, by having an affair with Paul's step-brother Wesley. This all lead to the casting of a deadly Voodoo spell on her by the local natives which turned her into a card carrying member of the walking dead.
Tragically in the end Wesley, who realized that his affair with Jessica lead to all this, together with the doomed and already dead Jessica end up under the waves of the Caribbean Sea. The movie does such a good job of exploring and explaining Voodoo and Zombies that it almost makes you believe, like it does Paul Wesley Betsy Dr. Maxwell and Mrs. Rand, in it.
Don't expect "I Waked with a Zombie" to be a horror movie. It's a far more gripping and perceptive film about the unknown that's all around us that were just too blind to see and believe. Until it's jolting effects hits us, like it did to those in the movie, right between the eyes.
First of all: PLEASE don't let the misleading, rather silly sounding title discourage you! I walked with a Zombie is another brilliant result of the collaborations between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. Released one year after the simply astonishing movie 'Cat People', this is yet another intelligently elaborated and genuinely original genre-masterpiece. The solid screenplay contains a rarely seen before amount of eeriness and handles about a young ambitious nurse who goes to San Antonio in order to take care of Jessica. Jessica is the wife of plantation-owner Paul Holland and she suffers from a bizarre mental paralysis, supposedly caused by a tropical fever. She is in fact a zombie only not the type of walking corpse you usually expect in horror movies. Betsy, the nurse, is somehow convinced that Jessica may still be cured and turns to the Voodoo-community that is living on the island as well. Just like he pulled it off in Cat People, Tourneur manages to bring suspense in a subtle way. Without bloody images but with a unique photography and efficient set pieces! I walked with a Zombie contains great dialogs, intriguing characters and mind bending plot-twists. This is an intelligent and demanding film, especially made for people who take this genre serious! It ranks slightly under 'Cat People' but light-years above most other horror films. Check it out!
A nurse (Frances Dee) is assigned to the West Indies to care for the
semi-comatose wife of a plantation owner (Tom Conway). Over there she
becomes involved with a very dysfunctional family and the realization that
her patient may be a zombie--one of the living dead.
Eerie, poetic horror film--one of the great ones producer Val Lewton made for RKO on no budget. There are many creepy sequences--the crying and first meeting of Dee with her patient; the constant pounding of the voodoo drums in the distance at night; Dee being awakened by shadows outside her bedroom window; the walk through the sugar cane field to the voodoo ritual and the guard they must pass. There's also a man with a guitar who pops up from time to time acting as a Greek chorus--always commenting on the action. The script is very good and literate and the acting is actually not bad--except for Conway (who's lousy). But Ellison and Dee are good.
I almost gave this a 10--but one thing kept me from doing that. The silly love story between Conway and Dee. It's not needed and is a great distraction from the plot. Also Conway's acting is so bad that it makes the scenes play even worse. Those aside though, it's a truly great horror film. A must see.
Cute little trivia note: Look closely for the "Any characters and events depicted in this photoplay..." etc. etc. under the opening credits. Especially note this line: "Any similarity to actual persons living, dead, OR POSSESSED is purely coincidental." Cute joke...wonder how many people caught it.
"I Walked With A Zombie" is a brilliant bit of film making. Based
somewhat on the classic story of "Jane Eyre," "Zombie" takes us to the
South Seas, where Nurse Betsy Connell arrives on a remote sugar
plantation owned by the mysterious and reclusive Paul Holland. Betsy
has been hired to care for Paul's wife Jessica, a catatonic beauty who
wanders around in her nightgown a lot, looking (as the Sex Pistols once
put it) Pretty Vacant. The locals whisper about zombies, believing that
Jessica has been cursed and is now one of the living, walking dead. A
calypso singer follows Nurse Betsy around a lot, providing her with
clues in his catchy songs. Nurse Betsy, far from being a close-minded
Westerner, becomes intrigued by the tales of zombies and is determined
to learn the truth about Jessica's condition in hopes of curing the
woman. She even bravely ventures into the cane fields in the dead of
night, following the worlds creepiest looking native (a golf-ball eyed
zombie-like man) to a voodoo ceremony with Jessica at her side.
Fans of Fulci zombies may be disappointed by the lack of gut-munching gore here. These zombies are not cadavers returned from the grave, half-rotted horrors shambling about looking for flesh to feast upon. These are traditional, mind-erased zombies, unfeeling, unthinking and unresponsive to anything. The atmosphere is wonderful, filled with great music, strong women and natives who look like the real thing. The love triangle quickly becomes a love square and the haunting conclusion is both shocking and grimly satisfying. Fans of the brilliant Tourneur won't be disappointed - his mark is all over this beautiful film, from beginning to end. It is one of his very best.
The basic plot: A Canadian nurse arrives at the isle of St. Sebastian to
take care of a plantation owners mentally entranced and disturbed wife, but
once she get's there, she learns more than she should about the family
secrets, voodoo , and zombie fever......
The praise: A truly poetic, hypnotizing, and creepy film experience. The poetry of the island traditions, the family mysteries and everything else about the movie is truly evocative and sensitive. There are smatterings of spooky moments throughout, all frightening suggestively, using sound , imagery and implied chills. All classically and romantically constructed and written, a flagon of longing, taste, and character in every little detail. Well-shot, especially the impressive voodoo ceremony. Very atmospheric, with black& white used to enhance the mood, as in all Lewton movies. Watch for calypso singer Sir Lancelot, who Lewton also used in " Curse of the Cat People", an equally poetic movie, which I also have reviewed. A masterpiece of the horror film, it has many scenes which take together the essential elements of suspense and atmosphere , sound and imagery , such as Dee traveling to the voodoo ceremony. A must-see. Very hard-to-find. The only way I could find it was to order a copy of an unauthorized copy of it from Canada.Truly great.
Nurse Betsy arrives in the West Indies to care for Jessica, the wife of
Paul Holland. Jessica was struck down with a fever that has rendered
her in a permanent state of mental paralysis. As Betsy starts to fall
for Holland, she resolves to cure Jessica and get to the bottom of just
what is going on in this mysterious place.
Producer Val Lewton firmly carved out a reputation for having a keen eye with a number of literary horror adaptations in the 1940s, there is certainly a case for I Walked With A Zombie being one of the best of the bunch. Tho tagged as a horror film, and boasting a title to further that inkling, I Walked With A Zombie is more in keeping with the dreamy and atmospheric romanticism of Jane Eyre. Sure the voodoo core of the film is chilling in its intent, but to really sell this as an outright horror film would do it a big disservice.
Lewton's ideals are more focused on suggestion in a psychological way, the scares more cloaked in a shadowy unease, director Jacques Tourneur perfectly in tune with his producer to unhinge the audience by way of an approaching dread we can't see. Some of Tourneur's work here is wonderful, hauntingly elegiac sequences linger long in the memory, rustling wind blows as characters are appearing to float thru sugar cane fields, the distant rumble of ceremonial drums luring them forward with mystical powers. A voodoo zombie shuffling on a mission to fetch poor Jessica from the plantation home is not horrifying, its damn near gorgeous, soft and near silent in its execution, the whole film is simply full of memorable moments.
Written by Curt Siodmak, the concept for the piece came about by way of a number of newspaper articles that were telling of voodoo and witchcraft in Haiti, the scope for a screamathon horror movie was obviously there, but thankfully in this viewers humble opinion, we get a classy and chilling film that is dripping with ethereal beauty from first reel to last. 8/10
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